The Apocalypse Now Controversy Explained

"Apocalypse Now" has gone down in cinematic history as one of the greatest war epics of all time. Based on Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella "Heart of Darkness," it is a psychedelic journey into the horrors of the Vietnam War told through one soldier's (Martin Sheen) mission to assassinate a rebellious colonel (Marlon Brando) who lives in an indigenous village where he is worshiped as a demigod. 

The "Apocalypse Now" production was just as harrowing as the story the filmmakers were telling. "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane," director Francis Ford Coppola told reporters at the Cannes word premiere in May 1979 (via Washington Post). The budget had ballooned from $12 million to over $30 million, and much of that money belonged to Coppola himself; he faced financial ruin if he couldn't complete the film. The calamitous shoot gave Coppola an epileptic seizure, and on three separate occasions, he threatened to commit suicide, according to Independent). Once "Apocalypse Now" had finished filming, the release was postponed several times because Coppola had to edit over a million feet of film.

During its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it was screened as a "work in progress" — the first time an unfinished film had ever played at the festival. It was also one of the few times there was a tie for the coveted Palme d'Or, with Coppola's film winning along with "The Tin Drum." Although it received a glowing reception from audiences and critics, who have hailed it as "not merely the greatest film to come out of the Vietnam experience but one of the great works about the madness of our times," it was an agonizing odyssey to capture that madness on screen, one that caused plenty of controversy with many things going wrong.

Problems with the actors

To begin with, Coppola faced issues with many of the actors. After shooting for a week with Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard and feeling he was miscast, Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen. Dennis Hopper's manic energy was perfect for his small role as a motor-mouth photojournalist, especially because he was supplied with cocaine throughout the shoot. He wasn't the only one on set using drugs: The crew would have wild parties to relieve the stress of shooting in the jungle. Marlon Brando despised Dennis Hopper's perpetual intoxication, and their scenes together had to be filmed separately. But that was the least of Coppola's problems with Brando.

Brando showed up on set with a shaved head and weighing nearly 300 pounds, opposing Coppola's vision of the character as a "lean and hungry warrior" (via Independent). The legendary actor also had not learned his lines or done any preparation for the role, despite demanding a $3 million paycheck. Coppola had to shut down production for a week to read and work on the script with him. Brando also insisted that he only wear black and be filmed in shadow. This demand serves "Apocalypse Now" well, adding an enigmatic quality to the megalomaniac Kurtz and the overall surreality of the film.

In the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now," Captain Willard has a drunken mental breakdown. Martin Sheen was actually intoxicated during filming; smashing his hand in the mirror was completely real. Despite bleeding profusely and the crew's fears that he would attack Coppola, Sheen insisted on continuing filming. But Sheen welcomed the intensity of the risky method acting shoot, telling interviewer Bob Costas that it allowed him "to wrestle with some demons that I had been wrestling with for quite a while. Sheen added (via The Hollywood Reporter), "Now, I was doing it in a public forum, and in a sense, I got them out."

Coppola's manipulative directing style also brought Sheen's powerful performance to great emotional depths. One crew member told Rolling Stone

"He would tell Martin, 'You're evil. I want all the evil, the violence, the hatred in you to come out.' You tell that to a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic and he hasn't a chance. Martin is so pliable. Francis did a dangerous and terrible thing. He assumed the role of a psychiatrist and did a kind of brainwashing on a man who was much too sensitive. He put Martin in a place and didn't bring him back."

After production shut down during a hurricane (more on that later), Sheen reluctantly returned to the grueling set, only to have a serious heart attack shortly after. He had to crawl down the road to find help and even received his last rites. The pressure of making the film — emotionally and physically — was too much for Sheen, so he took a six-week break, publicly claiming heat stroke. Unfortunately, there were other unpredictable forces of nature at work against Coppola and the making of "Apocalypse Now." 

Dangerous conditions on set

Two months after filming began, Typhoon Olga hit the Philippines, destroying the majority of sets and forcing production to shut down for eight weeks. Some crew members were stranded in their hotels, and their small houses were ruined. This put the film greatly behind schedule and $2 million over budget. Variety reported that in the wake of the storm, the "U.S. military refused to cooperate, and there were claims that the governments of Australia and Philippines were pressured to deny production assistance to the film, which was considered to be taking a negative look at America's role in Vietnam." 

In USA Today, Coppola touched upon how "extremely dangerous" the shoot was, noting that "Apocalypse Now" was made before the days of computer-generated effects and everything they shot was real. "We were up in the air when flares were hitting us ... One person was lost on a construction crew, which is one too many. But it was extraordinary that we did all that, we did [it] with all this flying around and the explosions," he said. 

There was also an incident where real human corpses were secretly brought on set by a graverobber, for the sake of "authenticity," to be used for the bodies splayed on set and hanging upside down in trees. After producer Gray Frederickson discovered this, the police had to question the film crew and withhold their passports. "They didn't know we hadn't killed these people because the bodies were unidentified. I was pretty damn worried for a few days. But they got to the truth and put the guy in jail," Frederickson told Independent

There's also another scene in "Apocalypse Now" that is disturbingly genuine. 

The real death of an animal

One scene in "Apocalypse Now" that is particularly upsetting for animal lovers sees a water buffalo brutally slaughtered with a machete by the local Ifugao tribe, and it was totally real. Coppola explained to USA Today that animals were part of a production deal struck with locals in order to film on their land. They traded chicken, pigs, and other animals for slaughter, including two water buffalo. 

"I did not direct it or anything, that was the way they do it," said Coppola, stressing his refusal to keep an extra water buffalo on standby in case the ritual did not go as planned. "I'm not going to kill an animal for a movie; I'm not going to kill anything for any reason." Since they filmed in the Philippines, the crew was not censured for breaking American animal cruelty laws, but the American Humane Association ultimately gave "Apocalypse Now" an "unacceptable" rating. 

If you'd like to hear more about the controversial making of "Apocalypse Now," check out Eleanor Coppola's riveting documentary "Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Bringing "Apocalypse Now" to life wasn't easy and often felt like war itself, but the final result is a visionary masterpiece.